CHANGE HOW YOU COOK OUTDOORS WITH THESE CLEVER SETUPS
When people think about an outdoor cooking system, they may picture a tripod with a pot hanging from it. A tripod setup may very well be one of the oldest cooking rigs, as depicted in every period-piece movie, TV show, book, or diagram in manuals.
For me, the highlight of any camping trip, day camp trip, or wilderness adventure is making a fire and devising different cooking methods. Besides a tripod, which is versatile for hanging a pot or used to create a smoker, there are countless other tried-and-true cooking methods.
A hot dog or chunk of meat impaled on a stick over the fire isn’t exactly a cooking system/rig, but I’m sure we’ve all tried it with varying degrees of success. Two similar options meant to hang a pot over a fire are from the book, “Camp-Lore and Woodcraft” by Daniel Beard, published in the early 1920s.
One option is called the Speygelia and is a long stick with a notch or forked end that holds the pot and a small Y stick under it. The Y stick props the pot stick up at a 45-degree angle, and a stone pins the end down.
The second option is the Saster, similar to the Speygelia, but with a longer pole. However, this one is used to hang meat over or in front of the fire for roasting. In the book’s chapters devoted to camp cooking, you will see the Belmore, Pioneer, Roasting, and Campfire lays.
The iconic two-forked sticks with a crossbar (waugan stick) featuring hanging pots/kettles with two long logs at the base is the best rig for me. This cooking system was popularized by prolific outdoorsmen Horace Kephart and Nessmuk.
In more modern times, the Burtonsville Rig, popularized by Mors Kochanski, raises and lowers a kettle over the flame via a series of pot-hanger notches on a stick with a forked bottom to hold the cooking vessel.
Times have changed and so have ways of cooking outdoors as bushcraft grows and continues to evolve.
While researching some notches for a Knives Illustrated Try Stick article, I dove into the usefulness of a dovetail notch and how it could be used outdoors. I came across an old Boy Scouts field manual that showed how to use a dovetail notch to hold a support stick and a pot over the fire. It was called the One-Legged Fire Crane.
I saw only one notch from the writings and photos in the field manual. I wanted to modernize this system with variable levels of suspending a pot, meat, or a kettle. I used a large bucksaw I made from a 24-inch saw blade, a bolo knife with a 15-inch blade, and a Victorinox Swiss Army Camper knife.
Another handy and essential tool in a camp is a pilot stick, which is a robust stake that makes a pre-hole and takes the brunt of the work. I sawed a pole length the height of my leg, between 28 to 30 inches, and another half of that. I used between a broomstick and wrist thickness for the vertical pole and a little thinner for the horizontal (shorter) piece.
With the bolo, I chopped a chisel end to stick in the ground, turned the piece over, and made short, controlled chops to chamfer the top as it was upside down on a wooden surface. Carving would have taken longer but could be an option, as could be using a hatchet, axe, or tomahawk. I made a hole with the pilot stick and put the vertical piece inside to better gauge where I wanted the notches. I marked them with the bolo and went to sawing.
I used the bucksaw to make a cut that slanted to the right about halfway through the stick and then made one that slanted to the left. I made three of these a few inches apart from each other. With the Swiss Army Knife Camper saw, I cut down the middle of the two angled saw cuts to the same depth as the previous cuts.
The side cuts outline the dovetail notch, and the center cut breaks up the wood fibers for easier prying. I used the bolo tip to pry out the wood from the notch, which should pop out easily. A fixed-blade knife can also be used; I just had the bolo on me. The dovetail fitting was last. I used the bolo to chop the three flat sides like a triangle and cleaned them with minimal carving. Since the end of my dovetail fitting has a small knot to keep the kettle from slipping off, I called the project done!
Stone Age rock cooking with a modern twist—this may be an even older cook system than a tripod, dating back to the cave dwellers. Meat on a grill is the contemporary version of meat sizzling on a hot stone, in my opinion. The stone is usually placed over two logs or other large stones to allow room for a fire to be built beneath it. I like doing it that way in the colder months, as a larger, hotter fire is welcomed. However, who wants a big fire in the warm and humid months?
Late spring and summer stone cooking in my world is done using an Überleben Stöker Flatpack Stove. Cast iron and frying pans, in general, are heavy and bulky. Stones are, too, but they are Mother Nature’s frying pans and are already there. I like to save weight, and if I can avoid toting a skillet, I do it whenever possible. I look for a flat, wide rectangular or square rock at least 2 inches thick but no more than 4 inches. Four broomstick-thick stakes need to be made; the greener the wood, the better. With a knife, I make a stout chisel end and chamfer the tops to be driven into the ground and hold the stone—then it’s time to rock!
I place the stone on the stove, center it, and mark where the stakes will go. I pound the stakes, leaving about 4 inches of space between the stove and the stone, and put the stone on them to check if they’re level. Oil and eggs have a way of finding out just how even a stone is by dripping off. I test with water and make adjustments before making a fire. I always remove the stone and make a fire, building it until it’s self-sustaining before placing the stone on the stakes. Then I walk away and wait to see if the stone cracks. While the stone heats up like cast iron, I prepare the food. A large stone requires more heat, and the space from the raised stone allows more fuel to be sticking up from the top.
“Cast iron and frying pans, in general, are heavy and bulky. Stones are, too, but they are Mother Nature’s frying pans and are already there.”
When it’s time to cook, I use the middle area and preserve the sides and outer areas as the relief zone to keep things warm. Use oil and fats just like with a pan.
Safety Note: Never use stones from waterways or seasonal creeks, as they can harbor moisture that causes cracks or explosions. Handle the cooking stone with leather gloves, as it will be hot. Try to wear eye protection like safety glasses or sunglasses around cook stones.
ADVANCED HANGING ARM
This one may be a little more involved than the rigs mentioned above. While several versions of this type of arm hang off the central pole, this one I saw first from Dan Wowak on a Coalcracker Bushcraft video. This is a much more advanced and time-consuming pot-hanging system for people who like using their tools and making stuff.
“Never use stones from waterways or seasonal creeks, as they can harbor moisture that causes cracks or explosions.”
This cooking system requires cordage, two sticks about 2 feet long, and each with about thumb thickness. One stick needs to be a Y stick. Although it’s not part of the cooking system, a pilot stick is always recommended. Green wood is best for any type of cooking since it will be in close proximity to heat. Start with the Y stick and find the middle point, not counting the forked/Y-stick area. Carve two flats in the middle on the same side as the Y sticks to minimize the thickness and make it easier for the next step.
Now it’s time to drill holes in each flat until they meet. This can be done like a knife-tip mortice notch used on a Try Stick with a fixed-blade knife or with a Swiss Army Knife. Dan used a gimlet in his video to drill a hole, while I used an awl. It wasn’t just any awl; it was a Victorinox Swiss Army Knife awl on a Camper knife. I started with the awl and switched to the corkscrew to clean it up. Hammer the straight stick into the ground with the help of the pilot stick for minimal abuse on the straight stick.
“This is a much more advanced and time-consuming pot-hanging system for people who like using their tools and making stuff.”
Setting up this rig is a matter of putting some cordage through the hole and placing the Y portion of the stick onto the upright. Level out the Y stick, take the cord around the top of the upright, and then angle it up about an extra inch to allow for stretch, then tie it off. A notch can be made with a saw or carved with a knife to hold the cord at the top. Finally, a V notch, saddle, or latch notch can be made on the end of the suspended Y stick to prevent cook pots or kettles from sliding off.
TIME TO GET COOKING
This type of cooking requires knife and fire skills to make a fire, notches, and stakes. Try some of these unorthodox cooking methods and put your skills to the test. As Dan Wowak would say, “Bushcrafting is all about coming out here, using your tools, and having a good time!” KI
The tripod has a longstanding history as a robust structure with several outdoor applications. Tripods have been the go-to construction for smoking racks, drying racks, and cooking. According to most Scouts and survival manuals, tripods take a lot of wrapping, lashing, and frapping.
Unlike the traditional tripod, this one requires three sticks about a finger- to-broomstick thick. Two pieces should be about 2 feet long, and the third should be double their size. A small amount of cordage is needed to wrap around and tie the loosely bundled trio. Spin the longer stick once or twice; the cord must be on the loose side. The tension comes from spinning the stick, then spreading the smaller sticks, which will be the front legs.
This system works well with a twig stove for boiling or stewing. It suspends narrow cooking containers like DIY Foster and soda can kettles that can’t stand on a twig stove top.
THE PILOT STICK
When the ground is hard or frozen and good project pieces are at a premium, the pilot stick is a camper’s best friend. Pounding wood for cooking rigs or stakes for shelters is harsh on materials. I learned in the southern states and in my own that making a pilot stick adds years to your fire reflectors, stakes for pole beds, wilderness furniture, and cooking rigs.
These should be made from hardwoods like oak, hickory, maple, or sweetgum. Make them thick with a nice taper towards the end to accommodate different-sized holes.
The top (hammer end) should be chamfered to take the most brutal pounding into the ground, thus saving your project pieces from taking the beating.
A pilot stick saves your final work from too much cracking and mushrooming. Besides, you need to keep your work looking suitable for posting on social media!
A version of this article first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2023 print issue of Knives Illustrated Buyer’s Guide.